If Michel Foucault was a gamer (and let’s face it, Foucault never played games), what kind of games would he find compelling?
We can start simple. Tetris is an accessible game that most people are familiar with. In it, the player guides several shapes down a two-dimensional corridor grid in an attempt to fit them as neatly into rows as possible. Each shape is constructed as a series of square units connected orthogonally to one another, such that you could have a line, square, L-shape, etc. Each square unit occupies a cell of the grid, and when all the units of a row are filled by shapes, the row is cleared, and the remainder of the shapes drop down to fill what they can of the row.
Tetris is a pretty useful model for how games work in general, given its simple design. The player inputs commands to the squares as they fall. Additionally, it is a high score game, where the goal of the game is to get a score that beats all of the competition. Note that this is not necessarily fundamental: Tetris’s earliest iterations were slightly different from each other in little ways, with the GameBoy version winning out upon it’s release in 1989 as the to-be-determined Gold Standard of Tetris.
So would Michel Foucault enjoy Tetris? The question assumes that Foucault would enjoy video games at all, and since he died in 1984 having lived a life committed to activism and theoretical pursuits, it’s likely he didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the subject. In all likelihood he would not have had time to play games. The things that preoccupied Foucault’s philosophy (genealogy, history, relations of power) were reflected in the time he spent organizing workers protests and reading about obscure 15th through 19th century intellectual figures. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to consider why Booker isn’t rowing.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many lessons Foucault’s work could teach us about our relation to games. After all, Foucault’s corpus on power relations is sometimes most easily demonstrable in a game, where the environment is fixed in a peculiar way.
As an example, what is the player allowed to do in Tetris? Move blocks. The blocks are moved side to side, and spun, as they are pulled to the bottom of the corridor. In Foucault’s language, humans are molded by discourse and space, i.e. the language we use, and what we physically occupy. In Tetris, the scoring mechanism rewards clearing rows with points, which primes us to want to clear those rows. Meanwhile, shapes just keep dropping, and you must continue to clear rows as effectively as possible not only to accumulate points but also to postpone the end of the game, a Game Over, which is triggered by blocks stacking all the way to the top of the screen.
Barring themes of existential terror,* you must play the game the way the game wants you to, or else you are barred from playing the game. You cannot build towers out of the blocks, you cannot free associate with the blocks, you cannot spell names with the blocks, unless you are willing to admit defeat and a low score. Meanwhile, other things are also impossible, such as the pulling down of two shapes at a time, or flipping shapes on an axis. These are physical limitations of the game, but still shape how the players interact with the game, making them even more wary of wasting precious time.
So sure, there’s a standard Marxo-Foucauldian lecture hidden in Tetris about productivity and agency blah blah blah, but there’s also the more subtle, nominally Foucauldian tic that can be examined. My favorite feature of Foucault’s description of power is that with every new episteme, every new movement of power, the system get’s smarter about how to utilize it. His conception of power is not located in agents forcing their particular agenda on our impotent, yet knowing minds; it is located in the very architecture of society, in the ways we speak to each other, what doctor’s say, what the sovereign says, what religious heads say, what the media says — it all informs different types of Knowledge, which contributes to who we are, what we are to do, how we do it, and how we feel about it. But none of these is conspiratorial, six men in a room, cabal of rich lizard people, etc. etc. – instead, the system wants its own stability, everyone has a vested interest in power’s stability, even those who suffer from it, because that’s the way they know it.
While I have yet to read any literature on this topic, I’m sure none of this is new. Games as a whole have a very particular role in forming human power relations. Whether you’re playing Don’t Wake Daddy, Bioshock Infinite, Magic: The Gathering, Basketball, a level of Candy Crush, doing a puzzle, or stalemating Tic Tac Toe, games play the role of a puzzle. Whether this satisfaction emerges from “beating” the game or losing it, is based in competition or cooperation, is solitary or communal, is irrelevant. What is important is that the experience of the game produces an aesthetic effect, governed by the rules that created it.
Do we want to be rewarded because it is in our nature, or do we want to be rewarded because we are trained to want to be rewarded. You get all kinds of this in the lead-up to Foucault (Hegel’s “Life is Desire”, Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”). By playing a game, we are selectively imposing rules upon the world in order to manufacture an experience. Rules function as Knowledge. If there were no rules, Jenga would just be a bag of assorted self-similar wooden blocks; Magic: The Gathering would be a bunch of thin slices of card stock with different symbols on them. Dungeons and Dragons might be nothing at all. What makes video games interesting is that some of the rules are hard-coded into the experience as if they were the fabric of the universe. It takes the rules out of chess, and invalidates the non-moves. In the same way a Chess player would cease playing Chess should they arbitrarily remove all of the pawns on the board during the third turn of the game, the video game does not allow such arbitrary whims to change some of the governing rules.
I don’t think I have answer whether Foucault would enjoy Tetris or not so I guess I’ll be reading more Foucault soon. I just recently finished up a few books by Giorgio Agamben where he speculated wildly on what the difference between a man and an animal is. What a guy.
*the game is designed in such a way that you cannot win the game, but its “High Score” system actually reveals how you are designed to fail, that the game will end in your defeat by the game which is cataloging how valiantly you stood against it. While you may beat your opponents at postponing doom, the game will always outlast you.